Characteristics & History
Wensleydale may be the only breed that can be traced to a single ancestor. In 1839 a ram lamb was born in North Yorkshire to a mug ewe (an old type Teeswater ewe that didn’t show much of the New Leicester influence). The parental ram was a New Leicester. The offspring had the blue head and ears that show up as a recessive trait in Leicesters from time to time and was named Bluecap by its owner. Blue cap grew up to be a potent ram and was leased by shepherds through a fairly wide area for a number of years. He was primarily used for breeding Teeswater ewes. His blue headed trait passed to his progen, and by the 1870’s these unique sheep (although closely related to the Teeswater) were recognized as a separate breed and called Wensleydlaes. Like the Teeswaters, there was never a population of Wensleydales in North America. However, breeders today are “breeding-up” to produce them, using imported semen.
Wensleydales are characterized by bright and lustrous long, shiny wool. One of the largest and heaviest of all sheep breeds, the Wensleydale has long ringlet-like locks of wool. Wool from this breed is acknowledged as the finest lustre wool in the world. They are stately sheep that really grabs one's attention.The breed is large bodied polled and provides an outstanding long wool fiber. The ears are slightly elongated and stand upright. They are naturally polled and have a tuft of long wool on top of the head which is not typically sheared (for aesthetic purposes). Rams weigh about 300 pounds and ewes about 250 pounds. Wensleydale are white as well as natural colored ranging from gray, to dark brown, to coal black. The white Wensleydales seem to be a cooler, brighter white than the more warm and creamy white of the Teeswater.
The wool is kemp free and hangs in distinct, curly ringlets. The unique curled locks with a superior handle and shine is coveted by fiber artists all over the world. Characteristically it does not felt well, but spins up beautifully and dyes brilliantly. Wensleydale works exceptionally well as a weaving yarn, with fantastic finess for a longwool. Wensleydale wool also performs well for knitting and crocheting with drape and clear stitch definition.
Wensleydales are categorized as “at risk” by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust of the UK as it has fewer than 1500 registered breeding females.